Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Bakhmut was “only in our hearts,” hours after Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that troops from Wagner’s private army, backed by Russian troops, had taken the city in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking alongside US President Joe Biden at the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Zelenskyy said he believed the city had fallen, but added, “You have to understand that there is nothing,” and said about the Russians: “They destroyed everything.”
“For today, Bachmut is only in our hearts,” he said. “There is nothing here.”
The Russian ministry’s statement on the Telegram channel came about eight hours after a similar claim by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ukrainian authorities said at the time that fighting for Bakhmut continued.
Zelenskyy’s comments came as Biden announced an additional $375 million in aid to Ukraine, including more ammunition, artillery and vehicles.
The eight-month battle over Bakhmut is the longest and probably the bloodiest conflict in Ukraine.
Analysts said Russia’s victory at Bakhmut is unlikely to turn the tide of the war.
The Russian capture of the last remaining compound at Bakhmut was “not tactically or operationally significant,” a Washington-based think tank said late Saturday night. The Institute for the Study of War said that taking control of these areas “does not provide Russian forces with operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations” or “to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
Using the city’s Soviet-era name, the Russian ministry said: “In the tactical direction of Artemovsk, the assault teams of private military company Wagner, supported by artillery and aviation of the southern battle group, completed the liberation of the city of Artemovsk.”
Russian state news agencies quoted the Kremlin’s press service as saying: President Vladimir Putin “congratulates the Wagner Assault Commandos, as well as all the soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces who have provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artemovsk.”
In a video previously published on Telegram, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city had come under full Russian control by midday on Saturday. He spoke, flanked by about half a dozen fighters, destroyed buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
Fighting has been raging in and around Bachmut for more than eight months.
Russian forces will continue to face the daunting task of capturing the remaining part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.
It is not clear which side paid a higher price in the battle for Bakhmut. Both Russia and Ukraine have suffered casualties numbering in the thousands, although neither has released casualty figures.
Zelenskyi stressed the importance of defending Bakhmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying his ouster could allow Russia to gain international support for a deal that might force Kiev into unacceptable compromises.
Analysts said Bakhmut’s ouster would be a blow to Ukraine and give Russia some tactical advantages, but would not prove decisive in the outcome of the war.
Russian forces still face the daunting task of capturing the rest of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas. Donetsk provinces and neighboring Luhansk make up the Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, where a separatist insurgency began in 2014 and which Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-controlled regional capital Donetsk, Bakhmut had a pre-war population of 80,000 and was a major industrial center surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.
Named Artemovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, the city was also known for its sparkling wine production in underground caves. Its broad, tree-lined avenues, lush parks, and stately downtown area with imposing late 19th-century mansions – all now a smoldering wasteland – have made it a popular tourist destination.
When a separatist insurgency swept eastern Ukraine in 2014, weeks after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, the rebels quickly regained control of the city, only to lose it months later.
After Russia shifted its focus to the Donbass after a failed attempt to take Kiev early in the February 2022 invasion, Moscow’s forces attempted to take Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.
Fighting there eased in the fall as Russia faced Ukrainian counter-offensives to the east and south, but erupted again at full speed late last year. In January, Russia captured the salt-mining town of Soledar north of Bakhmut and encircled the town’s suburbs.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the town and surrounding villages, while Moscow launched a three-pronged attack to crush resistance in what Ukrainians dubbed “Bakhmut Fortress”.
Wagner’s mercenaries led the Russian offensive. Prigozhin tried to use the battle for the city to expand his influence amid tensions with top Russian military leaders, whom he harshly criticized.
“We fought not only with Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut. “We fought against the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,” Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.
The relentless Russian artillery barrage left few buildings intact amidst bitter urban fighting. According to Ukrainian officials, Wagner fighters “marched on the corpses of their own soldiers.” Both sides are using ammunition at a rate not seen in any other armed conflict in decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said taking the city would allow Russia to advance its offensive further into the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Zeke Miller reported from Hiroshima, Japan.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at